1. It must be free. While the trend is towards tablets and smart phones, there are tons of freeware games available on the PC. However most of them are not of high quality, so this requires a bit of searching.
2. It must be simple. Just because it is simple does not mean it is boring. Complicated interfaces often have better play value for those desiring a more strategic game, but it is a barrier of entry for younger children and those who just want a short game to play. This rule eliminated quite a few turn-based and real time strategy games.
3. It must be a multiplayer game. This could either be at the same computer, or over a LAN (local area network). If you have an internet service provider and have wireless throughout your house, then you can easily have a LAN game. Note that the Windows firewall will block most network games, so you will need to allow them through in order to communicate. For some I made an exception and included games where you could join a public server - but the whole point is to come up with a game where you are playing with someone you know. Also you may need to monitor the online chat.
4. It must be non-violent. There are many multiplayer games that are first person shooters with a war or military theme. These are easy enough to find, but are inappropriate for family play. This eliminated a lot of games, and it made the search more challenging. However if the graphics were cartoonish, or the game not so violent, I made a few exceptions to this rule.
5. It must not be a computer version of a board or card game. Why do I add this rule? Board and card games are easily found. And many just do not hold the attention of young children. I almost made an exception to this rule, but in the ones I found the interfaces were just too complicated for the casual gamer.So what did I find? Well, what I found was quite surprising, and some of the finds were a bit weird. For no cost, you can join a family together in a network game on any desktop or laptop PC. You do not need a top of the line computer to have a lot of fun. Moreover, many of these games do not require Windows - you can find an old computer, install Linux on it, and revive that old piece of hardware. If there were multiple choices in the same category, I tried to select the best. So here is the list, in no particular order:
Remember the game of Warlords on the Atari? On the Atari Warlords, up to 4 players could play, where each player had a castle of bricks on one of the four corners of the screen. The objective was to bounce a moving ball to destroy the other persons bricks and hit the king inside in their castle. It was one of my favorite multiplayer games on the Atari. This is the PC version of it, but only for up to 2 players using the same machine. It uses old graphics, but it is still quite playable. There is a twist on the old game: once a player dies, another ball comes into play, guaranteeing a quick end to the game for another round. This is the best alternative I could find, if anyone finds a better one let me know (besides using an Atari emulator, of course). Click here for the Bat N' Ball download.
As I included Bat n'Ball as an Atari Warlords clone, I sought to find a good multiplayer pong game. This psychedelic version of pong takes place in a sort of plasma fluid field, where you can push the plasma to project the ball, or suck in the plasma to make the ball come back to your paddle. You can actually experiment with the fluid dynamics on this one. Author's site is down, so click here to download Plasma Pong. You will need to answer the installer questions carefully to avoid any unnecessary downloads. Note that when you run it, it may say certain DLLs are missing - these are in the game directory, and you have to copy it to the windows\system32 directory. Also, if you are prone to epilepsy, the documentation warns to stay away from this game. Due to the fluid mechanic calculations, this one may not work well on older computers.
Click here for the Blobby Volley download site.
In Napkin Race, you are a tiny toy car riding on a bumpy napkin. Very good 3D graphics, and fun to play: one car is "it", and the objective is to be the first to tag that car. This can be played with another player over a LAN network. This is another favorite of mine along with Blobby Volley. If you don't like being a blob hitting a volley ball, I am sure you will enjoy driving a toy car on a bumpy napkin - the game uses realistic physics.
Click here for the Napkin Race download.
MARBLE ARENA 2
Suppose you get bored of driving a toy car over a bumpy napkin. You want to play in a 3D virtual world where more than 2 players can play at once. For that, I found a surprising gem: Marble Arena. Here, you are a marble in a 3 dimensional world where you must roll your marble around and collect stars. There are multiple maps, which keep growing, and you can apparently create your own. In one map, you must hit soccer balls with your marble into the goal. I don't know yet if there is a "tag-your-it" game as in Napkin Racer. If you decide to be more evil, you can knock another player's marble over the edge of some maps, where they fall for a short while before they will be regenerated at the starting point. You can change the look of your marble, your player name, and there is built in chat functionality if you happen to not be in the same room. I have not completely explored this game, but this is professionally done and was quite a surprise find. This multiplayer game works over a LAN, which I got it working on both Windows and Linux computers, but only after removing the password protection so that anyone could join. As a server master, you are in complete control, and you can even change maps in the middle of the game: however, if you change maps, each player can "vote" yes or no to determine if the majority of players want a different marble map. If there is one draw-back to the game, I noticed that at times when marbles move there were not enough frames to show smooth movement. While kids love it, I would like to see some more multiplayer games such as tag or capture the flag. Click here for the Marble Arena 2 website.
Here is another 3D game, and offers more competitive game play than Marble Arena as you can play the game "capture the flag" in one of two teams: either angels or demons. There is no shooting in this game, but it takes place in a destructible world of blocks which you can pick up and throw at other players. Even if one does not like capture-the-flag, all children do like to build up blocks and knock them down. This is fast-paced, and can be played between four players over the LAN network, but more AI bots can be included. Good fast-paced game play. This particuluar game won several awards in game design competitions. If you have more than four players, you will have to stick with Marble Arena 2. On an older Windows computer, I did get an error message where the graphics card or driver needed to be updated, so it may not work on older systems. Click here for the Toblo download.
If block building is all you want, and more strategy, Bontago offers a 3D strategic game where you must take over a map territory containing flags by building block towers. The taller your tower, the more area you control. When dropping a block it may tumble into an area where you do not want it to go, and will have to work with that on subsequent turns. Blocks come in different shapes, and this one can be played by up to 8 players. AI bots can be included, and there is an option for team play. A tutorial is included to help players become familiar with the interface. Many optional parameters can be adjusted to modify the game play. Click here for the Bontago download.
Yes, another block building game. Block Towers is a 2-4 player game like Bontago, except on steroids and in 2 dimensions only. Remember, it does not have to be complicated or in 3 dimensions to make a good multiplayer game. This must be played on the same computer. You can either build your own tower or throw blocks at the other player to get him/her to fall off his tower. This was done by some individual, currently available on his public skydrive. Click here for more info on Block Towers.
If you want a 3D multiplayer world where you can build things out of blocks, check out Infiniminer. You can compete and try and dig to find the most gold, or it can be a casual cooperative game like Marble Arena 2. The popular Minecraft game got its inspiration from this game. This one is free, and allows you to setup your own server. Click here for the Infiniminer website. One thing I found in play-testing, is that you should try to install this game in some other folder than c:\Program Files - otherwise you will not be able to change the configuration settings or save your Infiniminer worlds for future play.
This is a very fast paced two-dimensional shooter game, where you will need to join an online server to join a game. It is highly popular, and the play is addicting. I would recommend it for older children. Yes, you do have guns, bazookas, and a large hammer, but it is all very cartoonish and each player is a round-Kirby like character that immediately regenerates. You also get a grapple hook where you can swing from ceilings or grapple other players. Games tend to either to be to hit other players the most, or there are capture-the-flag team like games. The only drawback of this game is that unlike Kirby, you can't just open your mouth and swallow the other players like Kirby could in other Nintendo games. Game play is crazy - for this, see a sample of it in the following youtube video:
Click here for the Teeworlds website.
HEDGEWARS (or alternative, WARMUX)
Yes, you want a cartoonish type 2D shooter, but not in real-time like Teeworlds. For this, try Hedgewars, where you play on a team of Hedge hogs that take turns trying different weapons to hit another opponent. Hedgewars is well-done, and looks like a free version of Worms Armageddon - except you are playing with hedge hogs, not worms. If you want an alternative that uses worms, try the alternative game WarMUX - it is similar, and I have not decided which is better. Although it allows network play, as it is turn-based this can easily be played at the same computer. Click here for the Hedgewars website. Or, click here to download WarMUX. Both of these are good.
You want a two-dimensional shooter, but not without blowing up cute Kirby-like characters in Teeworlds and you want it to be in outer space. For this, try Bitfighter, a two dimensional shooter with space ships. There are multiple games to play in multi-player mode: Soccer, Zone Control, Capture the Flag...and others. Some of the levels are obstacle courses, and some have asteroids in them if you want to play a little bit of that within the level. You can even create your own map with a map editor. With this one you want to make sure you have a mouse, as ship movement is controlled by the keyboard, but aiming and shooting by the mouse. Click here for the Bitfighter website.
BZFLAG (or alternative, HOVER TANK 3D)
This again is close to a first person shooter game, where you are in a tank and must survive longer than others, shooting other tanks. However I loved the old game of Battlezone, and this one brings back good memories. There are two modes of play: either shoot and destroy as many other tanks as you can, or capture the flag of the opposing team. There can be up to five teams in a game. There are online games, but there is apparently a way to setup your own server and make it private. Setting up your own server does not look easy - but there is an online wiki on how to arrange the configuration file. If you want an alternative multiplayer 3D tank game, try Hover Tank 3D. Click here for the BZFlag website. Or, click here for a download site for Hover Tank 3D.
If you want something fast-paced and nerve-racking, but don't want the guns of Teeworlds, try Armegetron Advanced, where up to 8 players can compete in a Tron-like game. And for those of you who have never seen Tron - nor the excellent reboot movie that came out recently - Tron is a game where light cycles enter an arena, creating a wall behind them. The objective is to survive the longest without crashing into a wall. Click here for the Armagetron Advanced web site.
In Cultris II, you duel one on one with another player in the game of Tetris. Tetris, involving placing geometric shapes, is somewhat educational for children as well. You can play side by side or join a public internet game. Different game modes are supported, all with team play. Click here for the Cultris II website. There are many alternative choices for this one.
Mr. Blocko is similar to Tetris, except you have a little block shaped guy who must push the blocks together to make them disappear. This game is for 2-4 players playing at the same keyboard. Click here to download Mr. Blocko.
This one is similar to Cultris, but instead of geometric shapes in Tetris you have smiling bubbles, which you must rotate to join to other bubbles of similar color. I would say this is the easier version which younger children would enjoy more. However it only supports side-by-side play, no network play is supported. Click here for a Flobopuyo download site.
THE BUB'S BROTHERS
So you like bubbles? In this game, you are a bubble-blowing dragon, and must capture other monsters by blowing bubbles at them, similar to SpongeBob. You then pop the bubbles to get a prize in the form of fruit, which you then eat. Children will love this one. Multiple players can join in on the same computer, or over a network. There are also public servers where you can find a multiplayer game. Click here for the Bub's Brothers download site.
There are several freeware clones of the popular game of BomberMan, and I have not had time to find out which one is best. In the clone Bombermaan up to 5 players can join in on a maze and blow up blocks (or each other) and grab prizes. And just when you think you have cleared the level, solid blocks drop and confine players to the center, until there is one survivor. Multiplayer is only supported on the same machine, there is no network play for this one. For a similar game that allows network play, you can try BomberClone, but the game play is a bit better on BomberMaan. Other alternatives include Bomberman Multi, and Mega Bomberman. I'll come back to this one later, or drop me a note with your recommendation.
An older but playable game of demolition derby, where you must try to crash and destroy the other person's car. Cars and trucks are of different types, each with strengths and weaknesses. During game play, bugs will appear in the arena which you must squish in order to gain health or different abilities - which is the key to survival in this game. I guess squishing bugs does not count as violence? Not sure, but since its a bug I made an exception. This can be played by 2 players on the same computer. There are several download sites for this game, search for it and pick one.
WIZARD DUEL 2
This is a 2 player duel between two wizards on a small 3D island, where each player has one of four spells to cast at the other wizard: quicksand, hurricane, flood and fireball. Quicksand will cause your opponent to sink into the ground. Hurricanes will cause the wizard to spin very rapidly in the air, flood will cause the other wizard (or yourself) to drown, and fireball will cause him to burn a bit. Ok, maybe not completely non-violent but the water and music are quite peaceful, allowing you to meditate while you attack your opponent, so I guess it balances out. Multiplayer can take place on a LAN. Click here for the Wizard Duel 2 download.
LITTLE FIGHTER 2
I said non-violent games, right? Well, if the graphics are cartoonish I said I would make an exception, and this is an excellent high-quality fighter game with Manga style graphics. Different characters can be selected which each have different abilities. During game play objects will drop in which you can either drink for health, or pick up and use as a weapon. Up to 8 players can play in a local network game, or up to 4 players on the same computer. If this is too violent and you would like to listen to peaceful music with water while you kill your opponent, stick with Wizard Duel 2, but the graphics are not nearly as good. Click here for the Little Fighter 2 website.
SUPER MARIO WAR
So you want a multiplayer fight, with your favorite character Mario. Here, there are hundreds of levels to choose from, and the basic game play is to jump onto your opponent and squish him or her flat. Click here for the Super Mario War website.
WORLD OF PADMAN
When I first set out on this search I said no first-person shooters, but for this I made an exception. The game World of Padman is a high quality multiplayer shooter, a project which originally started off as a modification of Quake III arena. The graphics have been overhauled to give everything a cartoonish-toy look, to provide an extremely nice first person shooter without any violent war theme. Since its based on the Quake III 3D engine you don't get jerky graphics like you do in Marble Arena 2. The download is over a whopping one gig (!). See the following video which gives you an idea of the game play:
Click here for the World of Padman website.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
Now you have many options to setup a multiplayer game in your own home. And even if you don't know how to setup a LAN game, many games can be played on the same computer. There is something here for everyone. Forget having to buy another game or a new console. Gaming does not have to be a solo experience. This list is by no means comprehensive, but I tried to select the best. If you find any better choice, drop me a comment - perhaps this blog entry will be updated in the future.